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Garden a special place for Queens’ own

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You know you’re in a special place when the public address announcer welcomes everyone to “Madison Square Garden, the World’s Most Famous Arena.”

To basketball players from high school to the pros, especially ones from the area, it’s also one of the most beloved arenas.

Home to St. John’s basketball, the Garden welcomed a few local college teams in 2001-2002 not named the Red Storm. With them, a handful of players with ties to Queens had a chance to play on the hallowed hardwood, sometimes for the third or fourth times in their short basketball lives. It never gets old.

The latest Garden guests were Fordham’s William “Smush” Parker, a former star at Newtown high school, and Jeff McMillan, formerly of Bayside. The two visited the Garden for the third time this season for the MSG Holiday Festival last week. The Rams may love playing in the Garden, but after dropping games to Manhattan (82-72) and Seton Hall (99-99) in the Festival, they may not consider it a home away from home.

In the Rams’ only MSG victory this season, Parker netted 21 points and five assist against Northwestern. Otherwise, he struggled against St. John’s, played poorly against Manhattan and was terrible opposite Seton Hall. Parker, a playground legend in New York, still considers the Garden a special place.

“There’s no playground court bigger than the Garden,” Parker said. “How can you not be excited to play here?”

McMillan has played at the Garden five times in the last two seasons, making him an MSG veteran compared to others. In his most memorable game, he scored 10 points and pulled down eight rebounds in the Rams’ 68-67 upset win over St. John’s last season. Despite his physical gifts, he too played poorly in the Festival and jetted for the team bus after losing to Manhattan in game one of the holiday tournament.

The Garden was kinder this season to the Hofstra Pride, a team with a few Queens connections. Freshman forward Kenny Adeleke, a Rochdale Village resident, and Wendell Gibson, a product of Archbishop Malloy, played critical minutes down the stretch in a win over Iona, 67-54, on December 1. They have since played their way into the Pride’s starting lineup.

“For me and the rest of the team, playing here is a special feeling,” Adeleke said after the Iona game. “Every time I have the chance to take the court here, I try my hardest.”

“I grew up watching the Knicks, so playing here is special.” Gibson added. “It’s hard to keep you emotions in check because you know people are watching.”

Then there is Tyquawn Goode, who led Grady to the 2000 PSAL championship on the Garden floor. He returned to the scene of his accomplishment on December 8 as Fairfield’s starting point guard. There was a sparkle in his eyes as he talked about the “incredible experience,” even after his team lost to DePaul, 94-90.

Head coaches aren’t immune to the Garden’s aura either. Manhattan head coach Bobby Gonzalez, a graduate of St. John’s, was beaming after the Jaspers claimed the Holiday Festival championship by beating Iona, 69-58.

“This is a special place for us,” Gonzalez said. “Our kids lace up their sneakers a little tighter, they’re eyes get a little bigger when they play here.”

Hofstra first-year head coach Tom Pecora, a resident of Queens Village, has fond childhood memories of the Garden. He recalled sneaking into the Garden as a youngster after Hostra’s win over Iona.

“The first time I was in the Garden I was about 12 years old,” Pecora sa id.

“The older guys from the neighborhood snuck me in through the back. They were vendors, so they knew the shortcuts.”

St. John’s will reclaim exclusive use of its home court in 2002, as the Big East schedule dominates the remaining games. You can bet some of its Big East opponents will have hometown players, but many locals choose to play for the Jamaica school. St. John’s has for many years used its home court to attract tons of talent from all the boroughs.

As local teams such as Manhattan, Fordham and Hofstra have more chances to play at the Garden, however, local players will have more opportunities to play ball at home. When the public address announcer greets the crowd, they’ll feel like they belong. There’ll be no need for coaches or players to sneak in through the back door.

Reach contributing writer Adam Martini by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 130.

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